Pinellas aims to close reading gap between boys and girls

Pinellas County teachers are being asked this year to pay closer attention to how their lessons might better engage boys. The district has come up with a "gender equity self-reflection" rubric for teachers to follow, with the goal of improving boys' performance in English language arts. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Pinellas County teachers are being asked this year to pay closer attention to how their lessons might better engage boys. The district has come up with a "gender equity self-reflection" rubric for teachers to follow, with the goal of improving boys' performance in English language arts. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
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Principal Kristy Cantu pored over Sutherland Elementary's test scores last year, looking for trends.

She found one that schools nationwide grapple with: boys lagging behind girls in reading.

"It was noticeable enough that we wanted to address it," Cantu said.

Scores from the state's 2016 English language arts test showed a divide between boys and girls beginning in third grade, and the results from 2017 showed some gaps grew to almost 10 percentage points.

Shana Rafalski, the Pinellas County school district's executive director of elementary education, noticed other elementary schools had the same issue, so she pulled together a dozen elementary school principals including Cantu to take on the issue.

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Beyond scores, Rafalski says the long-term goal is to increase the county's high school graduation rate among boys, which stood at 76 percent in 2016 compared to 84 percent for girls.

"If we can not let that happen at the very front end, you're not closing a gap if it never existed," Rafalski said.

The group of principals created a "gender equity self-reflection" rubric for teachers to become more aware of how their lessons would impact boys. Some schools with noticeable gaps are required to include it in their school improvement plans this year, though the guide is available at all schools.

Since most elementary school teachers are women, Rafalski said, instruction and classroom environment sometimes tends to be more appealing to girls than boys. So it's important, she said, for teachers to think about their audience.

"It's about looking outside of yourself," Rafalski said. "A lot of times you develop lessons and activities the way that you would enjoy them, the way you would engage them."

The Pinellas Education Foundation, which has historically been interested in the gender achievement gap, commissioned LitLife, a literacy professional development company, to develop the foundation for the rubric. Rafalski said principals went through several drafts, reviewing and editing the guide to match Pinellas standards, and teachers gave feedback in time for its rollout this school year.

Brian Johnson, LitLife's executive vice president of growth and expansion, worked with Pinellas staff. Each guide created by LitLife for schools across the country hinges on the same core values: a strong culture around independent reading, teachers role modeling expectations for students to mirror, and building relationships between the teacher and student.

Some of the strategies include incorporating physical activity and games into the curriculum, spotlighting new reading material in the school library, and giving clear directions. Much of the rationale behind every strategy is exclusively geared toward boys.

Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at Rosalind Franklin University in Chicago and the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It, took issue with some of the reasoning behind the strategies, which she said should be applied to both boys and girls.

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"I just don't understand why they're singling out boys here," she said. "This is the problem of using gender as criterion for curriculum development. It's pretty hard to do without reinforcing stereotypes."

Eliot says the long-term solution would be to hire more male teachers in elementary schools.

"Boys don't see school as a boy thing. School is a girl thing," she said. "And that creates a real buy-in problem."

In the meantime, Eliot said, teachers should work on creating a "language-rich" environment with one-on-one conversations with boys and plenty of vocabulary.

While the Pinellas program was developed with an eye toward helping boys, Johnson, the LitLife executive, said it does offer broader benefits.

"The end goal is to make sure every student, no matter if they're a boy or a girl, that they're being successful," he said. "These strategies can be very much ubiquitous for every child."

Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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